Learn more about elbow pain: introduction

Elbow and arm pain is not usually a sign of anything serious. If it does not go away after a few weeks, see a GP.

How you can ease elbow and arm pain yourself

Try these things for a couple of days:

  • put a pack of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel on your arm – do this for 5 minutes, 3 times a day
  • take painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • raise the arm if it's swollen

See a GP if:

  • the pain does not go away after a few weeks

Get advice from 111 now if your arm:

  • hurts when you exercise but the pain goes away when you rest
  • is swollen and you have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • is extremely painful and difficult to move
  • tingles or feels numb
  • has been injured and you heard a snapping noise or your arm has changed shape

These can be signs of a heart problem (angina), an infection or a broken arm.

111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Other ways to get help

Go to an urgent treatment centre

Urgent treatment centres are places you can go if you need to see someone now.

They're also called walk-in centres or minor injuries units.

You may be seen quicker than you would at A&E.

Find an urgent treatment centre

Call 999 if:

  • the pain has come on suddenly and your chest feels like it's being squeezed

These could be signs of a heart attack or stroke.

Causes of elbow and arm pain

Apart from an injury, these things can cause arm pain.

Do not self-diagnose. See a GP if you're worried.

Main symptoms Possible cause
Pain, stiffness, difficulty moving, swelling tendonitis (for example, tennis elbow)
Pain, tenderness, bruising, swelling sprains and strains
Pain, stiffness coming down from the shoulder frozen shoulder
Pain and stiffness in the joints arthritis
Temperature of 38C or above, feeling shivery, skin broken around the shoulder inflamed shoulder (bursitis)
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Learn more about elbow pain: tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a condition that causes pain around the outside of the elbow.

It's clinically known as lateral epicondylitis.

It often occurs after strenuous overuse of the muscles and tendons of the forearm, near the elbow joint.

You may notice pain:

  • on the outside of your upper forearm, just below the bend of your elbow
  • when lifting or bending your arm
  • when gripping small objects, such as a pen
  • when twisting your forearm, such as turning a door handle or opening a jar

You may also find it difficult to fully extend your arm.

Read more about the symptoms of tennis elbow.

What causes tennis elbow?

The elbow joint is surrounded by muscles that move your elbow, wrist and fingers. The tendons in your elbow join the bones and muscles together, and control the muscles of your forearm.

Tennis elbow is usually caused by overusing the muscles attached to your elbow and used to straighten your wrist. If the muscles and tendons are strained, tiny tears and inflammation can develop near the bony lump (the lateral epicondyle) on the outside of your elbow.

As the name suggests, tennis elbow is sometimes caused by playing tennis. However, it is often caused by other activities that place repeated stress on the elbow joint, such as decorating or playing the violin.

Pain that occurs on the inner side of the elbow is often known as golfer's elbow.

Read more about the causes of tennis elbow.

When to see your GP

If your elbow pain is caused by a strenuous or repetitive activity, you should avoid the activity until your symptoms improve. 

Visit your GP if the pain in your elbow persists, despite resting it for a few days. They will check for swelling and tenderness, and carry out some simple tests, such as asking you to extend your fingers and flex your wrist with your elbow extended.

Further tests, such as an ultrasound scan or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan will only be needed if it is thought that your pain is being caused by nerve damage.

Treating tennis elbow

Tennis elbow is a self-limiting condition, which means it will eventually get better without treatment.

However, there are treatments that can be used to improve your symptoms and speed up your recovery.

It's important that you rest your injured arm and stop doing the activity that's causing the problem.

Holding a cold compress, such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a towel, against your elbow for a few minutes several times a day can help ease the pain.

Taking painkillers, such as paracetamol, may help reduce mild pain caused by tennis elbow. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can also be used to help reduce inflammation.

Physiotherapy may be recommended in more severe and persistent cases. Massaging and manipulating the affected area may help relieve the pain and stiffness, and improve the range of movement in your arm.

Surgery may be used as a last resort to remove the damaged part of the tendon.

Most cases of tennis elbow last between six months and two years. However, in about nine out of 10 cases, a full recovery is made within a year.

Read more about how tennis elbow is treated.

Preventing tennis elbow

It's not always easy to avoid getting tennis elbow, although not putting too much stress on the muscles and tendons surrounding your elbow will help prevent the condition getting worse.

If your tennis elbow is caused by an activity that involves placing repeated strain on your elbow joint, such as tennis, changing your technique may alleviate the problem.

Read more advice about preventing tennis elbow

Who is affected by tennis elbow?

Tennis elbow is a common musculoskeletal condition. It's estimated that as many as one in three people have tennis elbow at any given time.

Each year in the UK, about five in every 1,000 people go to see their GP about tennis elbow.

The condition usually affects adults and is more common in people who are 40-60 years of age. Men and women are equally affected.

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Learn more about elbow pain: broken arm

A broken (fractured) arm or wrist needs to be treated as soon as possible. It typically takes a month or two to heal.

Symptoms of a broken arm or wrist

Picture of a broken wrist

Signs of a broken arm or wrist include:

  • severe pain and tenderness
  • bruising and swelling
  • difficulty moving the hand or arm
  • the wrist or arm being an odd shape
  • a snap or grinding noise at the time of injury
  • bleeding (if the bone has damaged the skin) – sometimes the bone may poke through the skin
  • tingling and numbness

Because of the shock and pain of breaking your arm, you may also feel faint, dizzy or sick.

It can be hard to tell the difference between a minor break and a sprain. It's best to assume it's a fracture until it has been checked by a doctor or nurse.

What to do if your arm or wrist is broken

If you think you or someone else has a broken arm or wrist:

  • go to your nearest accident and emergency (A&E) department or call 999 for an ambulance if it's a bad break – minor fractures can often be treated at a local minor injuries unit

  • avoid moving the affected arm as much as possible – it may help to support it in a sling that goes under the arm and around the neck; find out how to make an arm sling

  • stop any bleeding by applying pressure to the wound with a clean pad or dressing if possible

  • apply an ice pack (such as a bag of frozen peas wrapped in a tea towel) to the injured area if one is easily available

  • don't eat or drink anything in case you need surgery to fix the bone when you get to hospital

If your child has injured their arm or wrist, try to get someone else to drive so you can support and comfort them.

Treatment for a broken arm or wrist

When you arrive at the hospital, you'll be given painkillers and a support (splint) may be fixed to your arm to secure it in position.

An X-ray will be carried out to check whether your arm or wrist is broken and how severe the break is.

For a minor fracture:

  • a plaster cast or removable splint will usually be applied – sometimes this may be done a few days later, to allow any swelling to go down first (a splint can be left on until a cast is fitted)
  • you may be given a sling to support your arm
  • you'll be given painkillers to take home and told how to look after your cast
  • you'll probably be asked to attend follow-up appointments to check how your arm or wrist is healing

For more serious fractures:

  • a doctor may try to realign the broken bones with their hands – this will usually be done while you're awake, but your arm will be numbed and you may be given medicine to relax you 
  • surgery may be carried out to realign the bones – this will often involve putting wires, plates, screws or rods inside your arm, but sometimes a temporary external frame may be used
  • a plaster cast will usually be applied to your arm before you go home
  • you'll be asked to attend follow-up appointments to check how your arm or wrist is healing

Recovering from a broken arm or wrist

Your cast will need to stay on until the broken bone has healed. This usually takes a month or two, but can take longer if the break was severe.

While your arm is in a cast:

  • avoid putting weight or strain on the arm – don't stop moving it completely, but avoid activities such as carrying anything heavy, driving and sports
  • keep the cast dry and keep your arm raised (for example, on pillows) whenever possible – read more about how to care for a plaster cast
  • do some gentle exercises and stretches to reduce stiffness – your doctor or a physiotherapist will advise you about this; see an NHS leaflet on getting your hand moving after a wrist fracture (PDF, 170kb) for examples of exercises to try
  • get medical advice if you notice changes in your skin colour, unusual sensations in your arm or wrist, signs of infection (redness, swelling or smelly discharge), severe or continuous pain, or problems with your cast (it's too loose, too tight or cracked)

Speak to your doctor about when you can return to work and normal activities. They will probably suggest gradually increasing how much you use your arm and hand over a few weeks or months.

Your arm or wrist may be stiff and weak after the cast is removed. A physiotherapist can help with these problems, although sometimes they can last several months or more.

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Learn more about elbow pain: treatment

Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated at home without seeing a GP.

It's likely to be a sprain or strain if:

  • you have pain, tenderness or weakness – often around your ankle, foot, wrist, thumb, knee, leg or back
  • the injured area is swollen or bruised
  • you cannot put weight on the injury or use it normally
  • you have muscle spasms or cramping – where your muscles painfully tighten on their own
Is it a sprain or a strain?
Sprains Strains
Torn or twisted ligament (tissue that connects the joints) Overstretched or torn muscle (also known as a pulled muscle)
Most common in: wrists, ankles, thumbs, knees Most common in: knees, feet, legs, back

For the first couple of days, follow the 4 steps known as RICE therapy to help bring down swelling and support the injury:

  1. Rest – stop any exercise or activities and try not to put any weight on the injury.
  2. Ice – apply an ice pack (or a bag of frozen vegetables wrapped in a tea towel) to the injury for up to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours.
  3. Compression – wrap a bandage around the injury to support it.
  4. Elevate – keep it raised on a pillow as much as possible.

To help prevent swelling, try to avoid heat (such as hot baths and heat packs), alcohol and massages for the first couple of days.

When you can move the injured area without pain stopping you, try to keep moving it so the joint or muscle does not become stiff.

A pharmacist can help with sprains and strains

Speak to a pharmacist about the best treatment for you. They might suggest tablets, or a cream or gel you rub on the skin.

Painkillers like paracetamol will ease the pain and ibuprofen will bring down swelling.

But you should not take ibuprofen for 48 hours after your injury as it may slow down healing.

Find a pharmacy

How long it takes for a sprain or strain to heal

After 2 weeks, most sprains and strains will feel better.

Avoid strenuous exercise such as running for up to 8 weeks, as there's a risk of further damage.

Severe sprains and strains can take months to get back to normal.

Sprains and strains happen when you overstretch or twist a muscle.

Not warming up before exercising, tired muscles and playing sport are common causes.

Get advice from 111 now if:

  • the injury is not feeling any better after treating it yourself
  • the pain or swelling is getting worse
  • you also have a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery – this could be an infection

111 will tell you what to do. They can tell you the right place to get help if you need to see someone.

Go to 111.nhs.uk or call 111.

Other ways to get help

Go to an urgent treatment centre

Urgent treatment centres are places you can go if you need to see someone now.

They're also called walk-in centres or minor injuries units.

You may be seen quicker than you would at A&E.

Find an urgent treatment centre

Treatment at a minor injuries unit

You may be given self care advice or prescribed a stronger painkiller.

If you need an X-ray, it might be possible to have one at the unit, or you may be referred to hospital.

If you have a sprain or strain that's taking longer than usual to get better, your GP may be able to refer you to a physiotherapist.

Physiotherapy from the NHS might not be available everywhere and waiting times can be long. You can also get it privately.

Find a physiotherapist

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • you heard a crack when you had your injury
  • the injured body part has changed shape
  • the injury is numb, discoloured or cold to touch

You may have broken a bone and will need an X-ray.

Content supplied by the NHS website